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If you coughed up the much-hyped sum of $1.95 to attend the Get Motivated! seminar at Scottrade Center on April 27 — or spent the similarly ballyhooed low, low price of $9.95 to take your entire office — you received helpful advice from speakers including Colin Powell, Laura Bush and Kurt Warner.
But that advice did not include an exhortation to read the fine print — or to do your homework before signing on the dotted line. Not one of the speakers counseled you to think before giving your credit-card number to any outfit that, buried in the fine print, advises that it will begin charging a $39 monthly fee unless you sent a cancelation notice to Tampa, Florida, by midnight Saturday. In writing.
And no one, oddly, bothered to suggest that you should never, ever trust anyone who offers to help you become a millionaire out of the sheer goodness of his heart. This is a level of detail, apparently, that's beneath Colin, Laura and a host of other celebrities cashing in on the Get Motivated! gravy train. Or maybe these aging luminaries have no interest in biting the slightly oily hand that's feeding them.
Get Motivated! is pitched as a business seminar styled for the patriotic, striving self-improver. Rudy Giuliani on perseverance! Kurt Warner on competitiveness! Howard Putnam, former CEO of Southwest Airlines, talks about management, while celebrated college football coach emeritus Lou Holtz takes on motivation, and retired general Colin Powell tackles leadership!
And there was all that on Wednesday, April 27. There was even Zig Ziglar's acolyte, Krish Dhanam, giving an audience-friendly recitation on the greatness of America, followed by an optional ten-minute "spiritual" bonus that concluded with an altar call right out of an evangelical church — only everyone who gave their life to Jesus was promised a Zig Ziglar CD to go along with eternal salvation. Now that's America.
But there's another side to America, and it was on full display in the presentations of the three speakers who weren't advertised on tickets or billboards or advertising spots for the Scottrade event. These men aren't mentioned in the official $4.95 Get Motivated! handbook or in any of the promotional literature. But they're the cash-guzzling, smog-spewing engine underneath all the fancy Get Motivated! chrome — a trio of salesmen who'd have made P.T. Barnum proud.
The celebrities are merely the bait. The trap: three-plus hours of sales pitches designed to sell you on the idea that you can make a zillion on the Internet by selling stuff you don't actually own. Or snapping up foreclosures. Or buying a set of online personal-investment tools.
And though the owners of Get Motivated! claimed last week to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that these snake-oil purveyors are "sponsors," that's not quite true. The hardest of the hard sells, the one that gets the coveted lunchtime spot and sports the highest price tag, comes from a company owned by the same man who's behind the entire Get Motivated! concept.
It's a time-share deal on steroids — one in which Laura Bush and Colin Powell have agreed to be the "free" lunch.
At a sprightly 74, Lou Holtz boasts an enviable stage presence. He talks kind of funny — a hint of a speech impediment lurks in his S's — but you can't help but be charmed by that beatific smile, his you-can-do-it attitude, the excitement he can't help sharing. For the St. Louis crowd, he even performs a magic trick. (Struggling to tear a copy of USA Today into quarters, only to present it untouched a few seconds later, he remarks, "When I was younger, that was a phone book." The laugh he gets is one of the day's biggest.)
By the time Holtz finishes speaking, at 10 a.m., the crowd that has nearly filled Scottrade to its capacity of 20,000 is positively glowing. He's followed by Dhanam, the heir to the Zig Ziglar legacy, telling the crowd of Missourians exactly what they want to hear about how he arrived from India with $9 in his pocket and eventually gave his life to Christ and found material success to boot, no government assistance necessary. What a country!
Then Bob Kittell steps up.
It's 10:35 a.m., and the crowd is fresh from a bathroom break. Most of them have been here for three hours, and they're primed for some big names. When the day's emcee, former child actress Kari Michaelsen — she played Katie Kanisky in the '80s sitcom Gimme a Break! — announces that audiences have told Get Motivated! they're most hungry for financial advice, a murmur ripples through. "Steve Forbes," one man tells his companion, confidently.
But it's not Steve Forbes who takes the stage. It is, instead, a man who receives little introduction, even though unlike the "names" on today's bill, he could use one. All Michaelsen explains is that he's here to talk about the power of education and finance, and he has done training for CNBC and Businessweek. No other credentials are proffered before she cries out, "Bob Kittell!" There's an audible chorus of "who?" as a man sporting a Kennedyesque shock of chestnut hair strides to the stage.
Kittell starts by telling how, as a student-athlete, he missed two consecutive field goals in front of a crowd of 50,000. It's an effective opener, and throughout his talk he styles himself self-deprecatingly as the blue-collar kid who did well for himself in sports. He even looks the part, down to the slightly crooked nose (football injury?), and though he never comes close to explaining how he got rich, there are references to his worldly success throughout.
His patter is about how great it would be to "get a clue" — and how, coincidentally, there are tools online that can help even the least savvy of investors do just that. Apparently, with a few keystrokes and mouse-clicks, you can figure out whether the big shots are buying or selling — and whether you should, too.
As if to head off the inevitable question ("If this guy's so rich, why's he shilling as a no-name motivational speaker?"), Kittell diverges from his sermon to suggest that he now has so much time on his hands, he needs to get out of the house, lest he get stuck playing host to his teenage son's posse.
"First of all, they pay me pretty well to be here," he says. "Second of all, I tried it myself. And I have been so blessed that I wake up every day and do what I like to do. And I need the rest! I like going on the road once in a while." He mimics his son's friends: "'We know you don't work.'"
Kittell has a pretty expansive definition of "not working." Even though his official website contains no links to a company called Investools, newspaper accounts suggest he has been hawking its products at road shows like this one for at least eight years. A 2003 press release, still available on Nexis, suggests that he works full-time for Investools, managing its "preview speakers and seminar director/preview sales support teams." (A decade earlier a story in the Columbus Dispatch references Kittell "touting a fax service that provides information about distressed merchandise at bargain-basement prices.")
And while Kittell at first claims that all the tricks he's demonstrating are simply ways that people can make money on the stock market from the comfort of their home, it quickly becomes clear that he's promoting a very specific product: the Investor Toolbox.
Also known as Investools.
Kittell is one of only a few Scottrade speakers to trot out a PowerPoint presentation. As he talks, he shows slides highlighting various features of the Investools system, many of which bear the logo of Wealth Magazine. As Kittell proceeds to describe the setup, however, it becomes clear that Wealth Magazine isn't a publication like, say, Forbes or Inc., but something else entirely.
It turns out Wealth Magazine offers workshops where participants learn how to "use the tools the big boys have been using." These two-day sessions, Kittell says, normally cost $1,929. But not today!
"Get Motivated! went to Wealth Magazine," Kittell tells the crowd. "They said, 'We've got to make it affordable for everyone, and we have thousands of people in the arena to justify the reduced price.'"
For anyone who signs up today at Scottrade, he announces, "Get Motivated! arranged for you to go for just $99! Let's hear it for Get Motivated!"
What Kittell does not mention is that Get Motivated! is owned by a Florida couple named Tamara and Peter Lowe — and that Peter Lowe also owns Wealth Magazine, which isn't much of a magazine at all. Notwithstanding the Forbes-sounding name, Wealth Magazine is available only online; a recent issue featured a few fluffy profiles and tips about traveling to Cabo San Lucas.
The point of Lowe's venture, Wealth Magazine Investor Education LLC, hardly seems to be journalism. Instead, it seems to exist to host workshops that tout Investools. Both Get Motivated! and Wealth Magazine Investor Education LLC are operated out of suites in the same Tampa office complex, according to the Florida Secretary of State. Internet registration documents reveal that the websites for Get Motivated! and wealthmagazine.com are managed by the same company — which Peter Lowe also owns.
Neither Kittell nor Get Motivated! responded to requests seeking comment for this story. After an initially warm e-mail, Get Motivated! did not respond to repeated requests for a press credential for the Scottrade event.
Nor does Kittell mention that Get Motivated! has been the marketing arm for Investools for years. In fact, when Rudy Giuliani was running for president and had to curtail his Get Motivated! speaking appearances, profits at Investools took a hit, as its CEO conceded in a 2007 conference call with investors.
Surprising though it may be, Wealth Magazine was not Peter Lowe's first foray into the sounds-like-publishing-but-isn't field. Success Magazine, a predecessor of Wealth, also hosted motivational seminars. But that venture went belly-up in 2001 and did so in what the St. Petersburg Times called "a very public fashion."
"Event attendees claimed Lowe failed to deliver the promised famous guests," the newspaper reported. "Creditors said they weren't paid, and Lowe said that's true, but blamed it on his former corporate parent." Others told USA Today that wasn't the case — that Lowe was responsible for day-to-day operations.
The fallout barely slowed Lowe, who resurfaced about a year later with a remarkably similar sales pitch. His seminars have since boldly provided a stage for everyone from George W. Bush (post-presidency) to Goldie Hawn (post-Botox). While today's St. Louis talk boasts a slate of conservative speakers, Lowe is ambidextrous politically: Luminaries from Ben and Jerry to Walter Mondale to Kirby Puckett have cashed his seminar's checks.
Lowe has been hosting seminars since 1987, and for more than a decade, those seminars have been used to market the Investools products. A 2003 annual report from Investools' parent company, which is publicly traded, describes the arrangement as a "co-marketing partnership."
In that partnership, the report explains, Lowe hosts the seminars and bears "all the costs, including the marketing and the facilities." In exchange, Investools pays Lowe's company a percentage of revenue for all "sales made to leads sourced from these events."
As the report notes, "These events draw significant numbers of participants that the Company would not otherwise have access to." Anyway, the company concludes, the money remitted to Lowe is worth it because the "follow-up workshop, telemarketing and website renewal sales will be on higher margin products."
After a series of mergers, Investools' parent company was acquired by TD Ameritrade in June 2009. But the company is not without controversy: In 2009 the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, or the SEC, levied $3 million in penalties against the company and two salesmen, Michael Drew and Eben Miller, for securities law violations. According to the SEC's official statement, the salesmen "misleadingly portrayed themselves as expert investors who made their living trading securities. They did so to mislead investors into believing that they too would make extraordinary profits trading securities if they purchased expensive Investools instructional courses and other products and followed Investools' securities trading strategies."
In reality, the SEC alleges, "neither Drew nor Miller made the trading profits they claimed. For example, in 2005 and 2006, while Drew was portraying himself as a successful investor, he had hundreds of thousands of dollars in net trading losses. In 2006 and 2007, while Miller was portraying himself as a successful investor, he had tens of thousands of dollars in net trading losses."
Though Kittell speaks for more than an hour at Scottrade — roughly twice as long as any celebrity featured on the day's program — Investools' history doesn't even get a mention.
And he's not done. When Kittell finally reaches his rousing finish, he adds a special offer: If attendees sign up for the Wealth Magazine Investor Education program right this minute, they not only get a "free" lunch — they also get a chance to sit in on a special Q&A with Kittell.
Judging from the length of the lines to sign up — nine deep even before he finishes his spiel — at least one-third of the crowd takes him up on the offer.
In order to gain an audience with Kittell, attendees must fill out and sign a slip containing their credit-card information. By signing they agree to attend a two-day class sponsored by Wealth Magazine, for $99. They'll also get three months' use of the Investor Toolbox (Investools) website, plus another two months if they attend in early May and put it off till later in the month (a hedge, perhaps, against buyer's remorse).
Should audience members fail to cancel their Investools subscription once the three- or five-month trial period expires, their credit card will automatically be billed $39 per month. And if they fail to cancel today's $99 payment by midnight April 30 (in writing), even if they don't show up for the workshop, they will be "automatically enrolled" in an online course and billed the full $99.
At the Q&A, while audience members nosh on their slightly soggy turkey sandwiches, chocolate-chip cookies and bottled water, Kittell goes into sales mode for another 30 minutes.
Mostly he stresses the importance of not listening to naysayers.
"Any time you make the decision to move forward in your life, there are going to be negative people in your life," he says. Why, he himself asked his wife to marry him 60 times before she finally said yes — and then, once again, "she said no."
"I finally figured out what the problem is," Kittell confides. "Every time I asked her to marry me, she'd discuss it with her mother. And her mother wasn't very smart." Similarly, if you ask your friends if it's a good idea to "invest on your own," he says, "what do you think they'll say?
"Can you make a decision to at least show up?" he admonishes. "Can you say 'yes'?"
"Yes!" the lunch munchers roar.
"Ninety percent of success is simply showing up," Kittell assures them.
After lunch there's a dance competition hosted by a white hip-hopper named KJ-52, who motivates the throng of mostly white, mostly middle-aged attendees to ape Michael Jackson's opening moves in the "Thriller" music video.
"We keep 'em stuck in the '80s!" he raps along to the hit song's opening chords.
The DJ working with him echoes the chorus: "Y'all are stuck in the '80s!"
"You're stuck in the '80s," KJ-52 cries. "Make some noise real crazy!"
After the competition, up steps Steve Forbes, still advocating for a flat tax and delivering a critique of the nation's health-care system that's too serious for this hopped-up Midwestern crowd. And then, at 2:25 p.m., when all anybody in the arena wants to do is hear Laura Bush and Colin Powell, Michaelsen announces that it's time for "one of the most popular speakers we have ever had at our conferences."
Time for another infomercial.
If Bob Kittell is the smooth face of the Get Motivated! sales pitch, James Smith represents its scruffier underbelly. The Utah-based Smith looks like a cross between comedian Richard Lewis and Steve Buscemi and displays a bit of a standup comedian's contempt for his audience. "MBA? Hell yeah, I got a major bank account," he says. "I graduated dead last in my high school class, but you know what I've learned about real smart people? You can be so smart you're stupid. You can go so far north you're south."
It takes a bit more down-home wisdom and a few more insults directed at the audience before Smith gets to his point: "You're so busy being busy, you don't have time to get yourself right-side up." The only way you're going to be able to afford to retire is if you make some money, he says — and he has just the investment vehicle to get you from here to there:
If this seems to you like an odd time to be pushing real estate as an investment strategy, Smith has news for you: Everything's about to collapse, and the only way to survive is to start laying the groundwork now.
"God brings freaks and weirdos into villages to warn them that all hell is going to break lose — and then the dude leaves. You're going to see the most inflation you've ever seen your life," Smith promises. But "you do not need to get hurt — you can get ahead if you get in the game."
The James Smith Company's three-day seminars usually go for $1,495, Smith imparts. But Get Motivated! has again played the role of an angel and convinced him to slash the price to $49, provided people sign up right away, today. And if you sit through all three days, you'll get a $50 Visa card for your pains.
"If I made it free for you, would that work for you?" he elaborates. "None of this Ginsu knife stuff, but really free?"
Once again the audience traipses out to the concourse, and a few thousand people grab clipboards and begin filling out credit-card slips. (One woman does think to ask, even as she completes the form, "If it's free, why does he need my credit card?")
If Smith's introduction served to paint him as something of a "freak" or "weirdo," there's something of a madness to the methods he suggests the crowd might use to become rich. For example, he notes that there are a lot of "retarded children" in this country, and the government will pay you $600 per month per bedroom to set up a group home.
And though Smith asserts that he is running a nonprofit company with the simple goal of "educating ordinary people on how to be extraordinary," neither of the companies he's promoting, the James Smith Company nor the Coaching Company LLC, is incorporated as a nonprofit entity. (Another curious detail: Smith's website features two videotaped testimonials, one of which is delivered by a woman named Kari Waldock — which happens to be the married name of former child actress Kari Michaelsen, emcee of today's event.)
Smith did not respond to e-mails seeking comment for this story.
By the time Smith is finished peddling his strategies, the crowd looks a little saggy around the edges, and Colin Powell and Laura Bush, who follow him to the stage, are each greeted with a warmth tinged with weariness. Both are pros, and both earn the applause they get.
But pity poor Howard Putnam, former CEO of Southwest Airlines, who comes directly after Laura Bush. It's 5 p.m., and only about half the audience has stuck around to take in his folksy, airline-related advice.
And Putnam is not the day's final speaker. When Putnam makes his exit, Michaelsen, trouper that she is, begs the stragglers to stick around just a little longer for some computer advice from Stephen Pierce.
Pierce is clearly on last for a reason. His claims are increasingly wild — riches! Amazon rankings! Google placement! — his pitch so breakneck, that no sentient person could keep up, much less one who has sat through nine straight hours of being lectured to. "This is not get-rich-quick," Pierce calls out as folks head for the exits.
Pierce winds down at last, and though Michaelsen is beseeching those who remain not to leave without filling out a credit-card slip — she went to his seminar herself, and "it was so amazing, so incredible; I've been able to use it in my life!" she swears — only the desperate or morbidly curious are left in their seats.
After Michaelsen says her final "God bless you" and the few who've gotten their entire $9.95's worth are free at last — once they face the gauntlet of credit-card clipboards one final time — only to discover that outside of Scottrade's doors it is pouring down rain.
Still, the clipboards aren't entirely forsaken. Far from it. At the table adjacent to the MetroLink station, dozens of seminargoers are filling out credit-card forms. Haggard after a long day of motivation, dozens of St. Louisans are pinning their hopes of getting rich quick on Stephen Pierce.
No one appears to be reading the fine print. No one seems at all perplexed by the fact that they came to see Laura Bush for $1.95 — and ended up spending $177 (plus $39 a month until it occurs to them to cancel their automatic subscription to the Investor Toolbox).
This is America, after all, and if you can't get rich quick here, well, you're obviously scared to get in the game.
Or you're listening to the naysayers.
Or maybe you simply don't realize that 90 percent of success is showing up.